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One Who Becomes

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Once there was a storm spirit who became something else. 

The Dahan might say that, but the tale is yours. You could tell them a truth in return:

Becoming, like being born, tends to hurt.

You are lost in the canyon for so long. You ricochet from one rock wall to the other, back and forth, fast and faster, a constant rolling roar that drives out thought. The sun rises and falls, the air turns hot and cold, and you notice none of it. You are alone, lost in the sound, lost in yourself.

You don’t hear when the song starts: when voices rise in the air together, or when the drums beat. All that you can hear or feel is yourself and the rocks, echoing endlessly together.

Until something in the canyon walls breaks. For the first time, the canyon is not a closed box of sound beating against rocks. You feel air rush into the narrow walls, and you perceive an opening, and at last -- at last! you gather enough of yourself to rush out.

At the mouth of a canyon stands a circle of figures by a smoking fire: creatures who stand upright on two legs, holding arms aloft. You have been echoes so long that you mirror them without thinking, forming into a shape with arms and legs yourself. Two arms and two legs, two eyes that point forward, a mouth, a stub nose on the front of the face. You stand uncertain on your feet -- how peculiar this body is -- and they point their eyes at you. Two of them gasp, and then cough on the smoke.

They call themselves Dahan, you remember. You can remember things again, and think -- it is so quiet, after all those -- days? Months? 

…years?

You realize that you lost track of the turnings of the sun and moon. That knowledge falls softly into the center of your being, where you will contemplate it later. For now, you are spent. Weariness drags at the limbs you shaped for yourself, weighs you down to earth. The Dahan stare at you. You stare back. After a moment, you find your voice, turned to gravel by the long time in the canyon. “You have freed me from a trap I could not break. For that you have my thanks.”

Several of them gasp again. Two huddle nearer each other. Others take steps back. The one in front straightens, and then bows, arms held wide. It says, “It is not often that one of your gracious kind speaks so that all can understand. We are honored by your grace.”

You recall the truth of this. You remember speaking in peals of thunder, and only a few of these Dahan understanding your speech. But this body has a mouth, and a voice, and it seems right enough to use them. “Why?” you ask.

The Dahan look at each other. “Why are we… honored?” says one.

“No.” Words fit your mouth, but you search after right words, the ones that will make them understand. It seems to you that you didn’t care about such things, before. “Why have you… released me?”

The one in front answers, bowing again. “We had long heard stories of your plight, glorious one. Tales passed from clan to clan, of how the Stalker of Hidden Secrets trapped you in the canyon.”

Oh, yes. You remember that one, now. You remember the moment of burning realization, when the canyon was blocked behind you, and you shouted in your rage, and then your cry began to echo, and so you were caught. 

The Dahan continues: “A trick, some stories said, and others a wager, or a dare. This is the tale I heard as a child:

“Once there was a storm spirit, a child of lightning, who delighted in the song and dance of the storm. This spirit followed the lightning, making peals of thunder, and competed with other spirits of storm to make the loudest, most impressive roars. And so this spirit grew stronger and louder, and we learned to call the spirit Bright Thunder Roars

“One day this spirit came upon the Stalker of Hidden Secrets, who greeted them with fine words and said: ‘I have heard that of all the thunder spirits, you are the greatest and the loudest. Is that true?’

“‘It is,’ said Bright Thunder Roars, who was proud of their fame.

“‘I should like to hear it,’ said the Stalker.

“Bright Thunder Roars puffed themself up and cried out a great peal, loud enough to send the birds flying from their nests. 

“‘Very fine,’ said the Stalker, ‘but I am sure I have heard greater.’

“Bright Thunder Roars shouted again, and this time frogs and snakes and fish leaped out of the water, so loud was the call. 

“‘Impressive,’ said the Stalker, ‘but I have heard louder thunder yet.’

“‘I don’t believe you,’ said Bright Thunder Roars (and even then the earth shivered at the rumble of their voice). ‘Where and when have you heard a greater thunder spirit?’

“The Stalker hemmed and hawed, and made as if to keep a secret, because all know that the Stalker keeps back more than they say. The thunder pleaded and threatened, and at length, the Stalker said, ‘Very well, I shall show you.’ The Stalker led the way, and Bright Thunder Roars followed, until they came to a little boxed canyon in the hills. The Stalker said, ‘If you go in, you shall hear the great thunder I heard.’ 

“Bright Thunder Roars went in, but saw no storm and heard no thunder. They turned back, only to find that the Stalker had tumbled down stones to block the canyon entrance. The thunder cried out, but the Stalker left, for the Stalker keeps their secrets. And so some storms come without thunder, for the loudest thunder was imprisoned.”

The Dahan speaker continues: “We who travel together entered these hills not long ago, and heard the roaring of the canyon, a wonder in this dry place without water. We thought this must be the canyon of the tales, the prison of Bright Thunder Roars. We gathered ourselves for this ritual, hoping to earn a measure of your grace.”

You remember this, too. The Dahan dance and sing in their rituals, as some of your kind taught them. They call upon spirits so, to gentle their animals or bring rain or shift the land. And so they must have shifted the stones that blocked the canyon mouth. They are stones of little spirit, you sense, obdurate and turned on itself, but heeding the Dahan’s song all the same. 

You understand a moment later: “A favor. You seek a favor.” 

“If you would be so merciful, glorious one,” says the Dahan.

You feel anything but glorious. Rather, you are thin and empty, the ragged and distant end of an echo. If the favor the Dahan seek is anything greater than a whisper, it may be more than you can give. 

“What is it?”

“There is one of your kind who is not so merciful. They hunt, and sometimes they hunt us. They stalk through the wilderness, downslope, and when the spirit finds one of us alone, they strike.”

This spirit seems familiar. A spirit of beasts, of eyes glittering in darkness, a soft growl behind the bushes, stealthy treads through the jungle. “What do you call this spirit?” you ask.

“Sharp Fangs Behind the Leaves,” the Dahan say. 

Yes. The Dahan have a way with names. This name recalls the spirit to your mind, wild and fierce. That spirit will not listen to reasoned arguments, or talk of mercy. “That one hunts,” you say. “They respect stealth and skill and strength, nothing else. If some among you have the skill to pursue it, they may respect that. Otherwise, avoid the places that they go. Set guards, and do not go into the wilds alone.”

They look at each other nervously, and you suspect that they hoped you would be their champion. But you are in no condition to battle another spirit, nor do you have the inclination to do so. The Dahan must abide here and adapt themselves to the island’s spirits. That is the substance of the pact made long ago. 

“We thank you for your words of wisdom,” the Dahan speaker says, with another bow.

You know your advice, common sense that it is, is poor return for the favor they offered you. Gathering your resolve, you say, “I owe you a debt greater than that. Had you not freed me, I might be trapped forever. I swear to you, you may call upon me for aid. You and your children and your children’s children, a generation for every year I spent in that canyon.”

It may be a foolish vow. As you speak, the words wind around you like a vine, and your body grows more solid. The Dahan gasp, and those still standing drop to the ground. 

“We are unworthy of such a promise,” says the lead Dahan, not lifting his head.

“I swear it nonetheless,” you say. “Such is the magnitude of the debt that I owe.”

After the Dahan depart, you climb. 

Once, you would have traveled from here to there as fast as sound, only by willing it. But the world feels new now, and you wear a new body, so you walk with your legs into the hills and mountains. It is slow, and effortful: moisture breaks out on your skin as you climb, and the legs ache. 

Yet the ache passes in time. You keep climbing, the sun beating down on your head and back. You sense others of your kind all around you: tiny spirits of insect and seed and blooms, too small-minded and fast-paced to talk to; larger spirits of beasts and twisted trees, content with their prowls and perches on rocks. The wind blowing in your face is a larger spirit, tapping a curious question on your Dahan-like face. You tell the wind there is no cause for concern, and continue. The mountain beneath your feet is itself a spirit too vast and slow to bother itself about who crawls across its stony skin.

You climb in search of rain and storm, but the sun shines relentlessly down, and the air blowing about your face is dry. You have not traversed the island so before, step by step, each crook and cranny in the ground unfolding as you go. You climb tree-lined slopes, acknowledging the spiny tree spirits in passing, and you walk still through the trees as the sun sets and the shadows of trees darken and lengthen across the ground. In the last rays of the sun, the shadows gather and flicker, a shifting, moving tide. You pause, knowing that to step awry would be a trespass against the spirit just arrived.

The shadow speaks without greeting or preamble: “You look like one of them.”  

“A seeming, only,” you say.

The shadows coil and shimmer around you, first growing tall in one place, then bulging wide in another, in constant motion. “You don’t fear me as they do.”

“As I said, a seeming. I am not one of them.” You hope that the shadow-spirit will not ask you why you wear this form, then. You aren’t sure how you’d answer. This body feels peculiar -- it goes off-balance so easily, its joints are odd and limited, its eyes only see to the front. 

And yet you keep wearing it. And yet, and yet… the body feels right, with all its weakness and its aches. Its limits. Are you less than you were?

The shadow curls up, bends toward you. “Different,” they whisper.

“How should I not be different,” you snarl. Your voice is low, the growl rolling along the mountainside.

The shadows don’t answer, though they gather in darkness as the sun sets. 

“Did no one notice?” you ask. “Did none of our kind--” You stop yourself. Tension gathers in your body. You know how your own kind are, wrapped up in their own natures, time running differently for the great and the small. 

“Didn’t see you,” a piece of shadow says. “Wondered,” adds another. “Didn’t know.” Their voices are soft around you. Are they attempting to soothe you, in their way? 

“The Dahan told stories of me.”

“Yes yes,” says the shadow, shifting upward like flame. “Around the light, backs to the dark, they talk I listen. Thunder gone away, water that devours, teeth among the trees. They say many things.” 

They freed me,” you say, aggrieved and loud.

“I tell.” As the shadow speaks, their voice flows from one patch of darkness to another, now high, now low. “Once a thunder played a game with one who seeks secrets. Once it took its secret away. Where oh where is the thunder? cried the storm. Dreamers fear the secrets, dream of traps and echoes, flee the thunder. Dance and sing and hide away. So many dance in the storm, perhaps thunder is here or there, no one knows. Perhaps they come tomorrow.”

Their voice fades and they wait, expectant, shifting. Their speech is less plain than the Dahan’s tale, but as you think on their words, you understand. The shadow thinks that other spirits wondered about your absence, but continued in their ways, as the shadow-spirit did. And the Dahan, well: they were afraid. Afraid of the canyon, afraid of angering some greater being by disrupting their plan. The one who trapped you is a dangerous sort, and you knew that even before you fell into their trap. The Dahan seek favors from spirits. They did not free you only to make you free.

But they freed you, all the same.

You fling back your head and shout, wordless, a long cry that blows your borrowed shape apart, into a semblance of what you used to be; that bounds across the forests and valleys, rolling around the rocks, rebounding off the distant mountain walls. You shape yourself again into your new likeness, sitting on a stone, and listen as your voice echoes far away, and other thunder spirits answer.

“Thunder still,” the shadow murmurs, directly behind you. The eyes of this body cannot follow all the shadows’ movements, ever-shifting. “New tales now,” they whisper, close to your ear, and then they vanish.

The shadows are only shadows, now, still on the ground among the trees. Your aches have gone, too, leaving your body clean and empty. You sit in the dark, surrounded by trees, and let your surroundings soak into your awareness.

Nearby, tiny nocturnal spirits flutter about their lives. The trees rustle and murmur among themselves, exchanging gossip. Not far away, a Dahan village settles around a campfire. Beneath you, the mountain slumbers.

In the distance, a storm unfolds. You can feel the sparks gather, on the edge of your awareness, and even see the lightning start to flash. The thunder follows, deeper and slower. Once, you would have rushed to join the dance of light and sound; you would have rolled over hill and valley to add yourself to the merriment. You were born of such a storm. Your parent likely dances there tonight.

But you remain on your rock, learning how the night air feels in this body’s lungs, and how cool rain feels on this skin. After so long trapped in the canyon, tangled in the echoes of yourself, you became something else. Not more or less than what you were, but perhaps, something new. 

The distant festivities of lightning and thunder die down as the night wears on. One day you will join them again. Perhaps even the next time, the next night. But not tonight. Tonight, in the quiet hours before dawn, you rouse yourself and go down the slope, stepping quietly to avoid tiny sleeping spirits of stone and spider and furled blossoms.

You find the Dahan settlement, comfortable round homes full of sleeping bodies. Their fire has dimmed to ash, and the sentries do not notice you. At the edge of their circle, someone has built a figure of stick and stone, held together with still-damp clay. The figure stands on two legs and holds its arms up to the air. Bits of mica pressed into clay serve for its eyes, and you recognize it for what it is: an offering, a figure of yourself, as you appeared to them this day. 

You will linger for a time, you decide, and go where they go. Better to learn of them and move differently in the world, now that you are different.

You touch the little figure and watch the mica eyes spark.